Megyn Kelly, Alex Jones and how to interrogate a liar without getting played
Megyn Kelly and NBC News are standing by their decision to give airplay to crank conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, despite an ad boycott by J.P. Morgan Chase and an outcry from defenders of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims whose memory Jones has defiled by claiming their murders were staged to undermine gun rights.
Jones is notorious for riling up his anti-government followers with doctored videos and elaborate lies, among them that the 9/11 and Oklahoma City attacks were “inside jobs,” massacres at Sandy Hook and Orlando were “hoaxes,” Hillary Clinton was running a satanic pedophile ring in a pizza parlor, government bombs have turned frogs gay, and a yogurt company was employing migrant rapists.
The audience for such dross is larger and more influential than you might think; Infowars had 238 million visitors in the last year, including 4.5 million unique visitors in the last month, according to Quantcast — 50 percent more than Pulitzer-Prize winning fact-checking site Politifact.org, which clocked 2.9 million uniques in the last 30 days.
One of Jones’ fans happens to be President Trump.
Kelly, a former Fox News host who gained wider fame by asking Trump tough questions during the campaign, may be seeking to bring over her old audience and burnish her credentials with a new one as an interpreter of right-wing views. But her decision, in her words, to “shine a light” on Jones in the third week of her highly anticipated Sunday night NBC News show raises a raft of troubling ethical questions. First: Was it a venal ploy for ratings, lending a prime-time national network platform to a nonsense-spewing hatemonger — or, as she and NBC News have argued, a newsworthy interrogation of an influential, controversial figure who claims to advise Donald Trump, and whom the president has praised for his “amazing” reputation?
It also raises a broader set of questions for all journalists: Under what circumstances is it in the public interest to interview liars? And when we do, how do we hold them accountable, avoid being played and make sure the audience gets the truth?
In the case of Jones, his audience might be shocked to learn Jones’ lawyer in a child custody battle he recently lost argued he’s a performance artist, no truer to his fire-breathing persona than an actor. Whether Jones believes his own stories or not, they have done irreparable harm to families who’ve already suffered unimaginably from the murder of loved ones.
Jones’ gullible followers have harassed Sandy Hook families for years, accusing them of staging their kids’ deaths and selling them into trafficking, a despicable claim revived by so-called “Sandy Hook truthers” on Twitter Sunday night. Just last week, a Florida woman was sentenced to five months in prison for death threats she made against the father of a child gunned down there.
Jones also promoted the sick hoax that Clinton and her campaign chairman were keeping kids enslaved in a Washington, D.C. pizzeria, sparking a string of death threats and a visit from a North Carolina gunman who fired shots, endangering real children in what happens to be my neighborhood pizzeria. Similarly, Chobani yogurt’s founder faced death threats from Jones’ supporters who believed his claim that the Kurdish entrepreneur was employing foreign rapists. Legal action or the threat of it forced Jones to retract his claims about both Chobani and the pizzeria.
NBC News released clips of Kelly’s interview, set to air next Sunday, in which Jones repeats some of his debunked claims. Kelly referred to Jones as a “conservative” and “libertarian,” though mainstream members of those movements are insulted to be associated with him. Jones is a voice for a paranoid fringe of gun-absolutist, nativist, tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists. In clips where Kelly challenges him, he is shown changing the subject to Iraq War deaths and his belief in “animal-human hybrids.”
Outraged parents of Sandy Hook victims tweeted images of their dead first-graders celebrating their final birthdays, noting that on Father’s Day when NBC News airs Jones’ interview, Sandy Hook fathers will visit their children’s graves.
Sympathizers including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio accused NBC News of putting ratings ahead of journalistic scruples and truth. The hashtag #ShameOnNBC trended on Twitter, with demands the interview be pulled.
As of Monday night, J.P. Morgan Chase yanked its ads from NBC News and digital until after the interview. Ever the contrarian, Jones also demanded NBC News pull the interview, claiming it was a “hit job” misrepresenting his views “to hurt people’s feelings,” even though a 2014 story still on his site claims the Connecticut school shooting was faked.
In a bizarre-but-true coincidence, Kelly was scheduled to host a Wednesday night benefit for a gun violence prevention group founded by Sandy Hook families, who last night said she was no longer welcome.
I agree with Jones’ victims that he doesn’t deserve a larger platform than he has, but neither can we blame Kelly and NBC News for legitimizing him. It was Donald Trump who did that when he sat for an interview with Jones in December 2015, saying, “your reputation is amazing,” and promising the host and his audience, “I will not let you down.” Jones, in turn, praised Trump’s debunked claim that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated as the World Trade towers fell; Trump has tweeted Infowars stories asserting the same.
Is NBC News justified in interviewing Jones? It’s complicated. I don’t believe in giving liars airtime under the guise of “hearing all sides.” While it’s important to reach out to and reflect a wide spectrum of views, especially in an era of hyper-partisan media and filter bubbles, it’s not the job of journalism to present “all sides” in the name of impartiality if one side is demonstrably false. New York Daily News TV editor Don Kaplan put it succinctly: “Monsters don’t deserve a megaphone.” The Daily News cover today slams NBC News as “Nutwork News” for giving a “crackpot prime exposure.”
But here’s where other considerations take over: If prevaricators and distortionists are also newsmakers, kingmakers or influencers — advisors to the president with a huge following, or the president himself, for that matter — then what they say is indeed news.
Is Jones worthy of coverage? He claims he advised the president during the campaign and that he talks to the president and people who advise him “every day.” Informal Trump advisor Roger Stone claims credit for bringing together Trump and Jones (whose listeners were presumably converted into voters) and says the two have spoken several timesa since the election. Infowars crowed last month that it was granted White House press credentials — a claim Kelly repeated on Twitter, even though the site’s Washington bureau chief admitted when pressed by fact-checkers that it was just a one-day pass.
Politico has reported that aides show the president Infowars to cheer him up with positive coverage. And in what may be the most significant data point of Jones’ influence, a number of Trump’s repeated, false claims can be traced directly back to Infowars — that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton founded ISIS; that millions of people voted illegally; that the media covered up terrorist attacks.
For all those reasons, Kelly and NBC News can justify shining a hot light on Jones and the irresponsible lies he’s spreading to the very seat of American power — lies that shape policy decisions that affect us all.
As Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel points out, “The media’s job now is not simply uncovering and sharing news, it's helping its audiences navigate the often treacherous sea of information and ‘alternative facts.’” Jones, whom he describes as “an architect of our current political moment,” is one of the “loud, influential voices with huge, active communities and ties to the White House. It is unwise and increasingly difficult to ignore their very real threat.”
There’s the separate question of why Kelly chose Jones when she could interview nearly anyone. After scoring a sit-down with Vladimir Putin, choosing to profile sports reporter Erin Andrews and Jones in her second and third episodes makes her lineup appear more driven by entertainment than news.
The broader question raised by the Jones interview — how to interview someone who promotes “alternative facts” that aren’t factual — is relevant to all journalists, and it won’t disappear in an environment in which many public figures seem emboldened to tell untruths. For those cases, I offer these guidelines:
- Ask yourself — and your editor — why you’re doing the interview. Is it for ratings or clicks, or will your audience learn something valuable? Don’t give a liar a platform and publicity unless the person is truly newsworthy.
- Go in prepared. Watch or read every interview they’ve done and research every lie they’ve told. Come armed with facts to challenge their narrative at the appropriate time. If you’re conducting the interview at a leisurely pace — not on live TV when an almost immediate rebuttal is required — you can let your subject cook his or her own goose before you present your evidence that disproves false claims.
- Seek a follow-up interview, even by telephone, if they raise dubious new claims that you’re unable to fact-check in real time.
- Think carefully before broadcasting live. It’s a lot easier to add video, audio or written evidence that proves a liar wrong in post-production. (Politicians know this, which is why many insist on live, uncut interviews).
- Check your facts. Check them again. Now check them again. Don’t undermine your own credibility by making a mistake. And if you do, acknowledge and correct it immediately.
Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, has tips that are especially relevant to television and video interviewers:
- Come armed with evidence in visual form; don’t just read quotes or facts aloud. And don’t expect viewers in an era of low trust in media to trust an interviewer’s words any more than an interviewee’s. “Have the evidence ready to present on screen through a graphic or video," he recommends. “Viewers will know if he or she is not addressing what is on screen” and it prevents them “from changing the subject too easily or obfuscating” — as Jones clearly sought to do when Kelly questioned him about Sandy Hook.
- In a live situation, a top-notch production team that can swiftly adapt evidence already collected to disprove any new falsehoods uttered is critical, Mantzarlis says; a subject may “tweak the claim in a way that would require changing the evidence presented before projecting it.”
I asked The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for bird-dogging and fact-checking Trump’s specious claims of charitable giving, to share his best practices. He credits them to Deborah Nelson, a Pulitzer-winning reporter he worked with when he was an intern at the Seattle Times (she’s now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland):
- Start your reporting from the outside in, Fahrenthold says. Gather documents, then start interviews with the most distant and disconnected sources. Learn as much as you can from the outer circle of the person's connections, then from the inner circle, before you talk to the subject himself/herself. Then, you enter with enough knowledge that you'll know if the interviewee is lying, and you can confront them in the same interview.
- If you suspect somebody is lying to you, don't interrupt them. In fact, encourage them to continue, asking follow-up questions so the false story can be spun out in its entirety. Only then do you confront them with the fact that you know they're lying, and ask them to go over the story again, this time telling the truth. By learning the full details of the lie, you can understand more about what they were hiding, and how much effort they'd put into hiding it.
I wholeheartedly endorse letting subjects hoist themselves by their own petards when the format of an interview allows for it. As Fahrenthold proved after talking to Trump and his associates about the family’s supposed charitable giving, you learn a lot more by letting people tell their stories, full of holes as they may be. Just be sure you have the goods to prove them wrong if they’re lying.
Which brings us back to Jones, one of the most influential — and regrettably newsworthy — liars in business today. I’ll withhold judgment on whether Kelly achieved the feat of holding him and those in the White House who listen to him accountable until the interview airs. (For all we know, NBC News may be adding context or critical voices in response to the angry reaction).
Depending on her questions and the pushback she gave, Kelly may have carried Jones’ water — or boiled it.